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March 06, 2023

This International Women’s Day, give women what they need - safety

Every day, I hear horrible stories from back home in Afghanistan. Women call and tell me about the threats and brutality that have increased since the Taliban takeover.

Adela (an alias) told me about female hospital workers who were beaten for not wearing a hijab. Family friends relayed the story of a child bride, just 13 years old, who died giving birth to a little girl, her body not developed enough for the harsh reality of labour. 

But it’s not just Afghanistan. I work with women’s rights activists around the world who share similar stories of rising violence against women. A friend in Pakistan told me about women who had to leave their homes due to flooding and were now in camps where rape and harassment are rampant.

My colleague in Nigeria talks regularly about how Covid-19 increased rates of intimate-partner violence, which was already on the rise before the pandemic.

Recently, a US colleague sent me a news story on the escalating incidents of sexual violence in the US military. 

Time and again, I hear the same question: Why? Why, as conflict, climate change and Covid-19 exacerbate violence against women and girls, are governments not seeking more concrete solutions?

Over the past 30 years, experts from the Commission on the Status of Women to Special Rapporteurs on violence against women to frontline advocates have repeatedly called for a global treaty to eliminate violence against women and girls. We know how to solve this problem. Why, then, in the face of the most pervasive human rights crisis on earth, are governments not making women and girls’ safety a higher priority? 

"I know this type of violence first-hand"

I have no answer for them. Over the years, advocates have been told that the solution lies in better implementation of current instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

In a recent meeting, my colleagues and I were told that the timing for such a treaty is not right. Yet meanwhile, violence against women and girls continues to escalate.

UN Women reports that women are feeling less safe because of increased conflict between adults at home, increased physical violence or threats of physical violence, or because other women in the household have been hurt. As many as 73 percent of the world’s women have been exposed to some form of online violence, making cyberviolence one of the most prevalent and widespread forms of violence against women.

In early 2022, the UN reported that more than 100 million people worldwide are displaced, the highest number ever on record, a situation that puts millions of women and girls at increased risk of all forms of violence, including sexual violence. 

Frontline activists who work to end violence against women often become targets themselves. Not long ago, female women’s rights activists in Afghanistan were arrested, beaten and their family members tortured.

I know this type of violence first-hand. As the first female judge in my Afghan province, I worked to secure more rights for women and girls, following in my father’s footsteps. He was a human rights activist and was shot because of our work. I held him in my arms as he died. I am now in exile, having fled my country after receiving threats on my own life.

My colleagues and I, we cry, we keep trying and we, along with the rest of the women in the world, keep paying the price.

Women and girls are dying. The activists defending them are hunted. The violence is rising. This begs a single question: Are the needs of women and girls being met under the current system?

The indisputable answer is 'no.' While the current international framework has produced advances, it is not enough to outpace the rising tide of violence. We must expand the framework to include the most powerful instrument at our disposal: a global treaty. 

A global solution to a global problem

A global treaty would consolidate best practices and definitions, close legal gaps in the current framework and create a binding, up-to-date instrument that clearly addresses violence against women and girls.

Specifically, it would mandate legal reform; training and accountability for police officers, judges and health professionals; increases in funding for survivor services such as shelters, hotlines and legal aid; and require violence prevention education.

Finally, it would create a framework that allows nations to hold each other accountable for women’s safety. The treaty is a global solution to a global problem that must, finally, be given the attention it requires. 

On International Women’s Day, we often hear promises about equality and standing with women. But I want to know what you will do with your words.

Equality is not possible without safety. A woman or girl cannot fully realise her rights to education and employment if she is experiencing violence.

Women and girls need action. On 8 March this year, we need global leaders to make a public commitment to a treaty to end violence against women and girls, and to back that commitment with action within their governments. 

I think about the little girl who was born to the 13-year-old child, a baby whose future is in jeopardy because we allow the cycle of violence to persist. Let’s end it. Let’s come together to outpace violence against women and girls with a concrete, clear and actionable solution.

Women and girls are waiting. 

Najla Ayoubi is a former judge from Afghanistan, now exiled in the United States. She is Chief of Global Programs at Every Woman Treaty, a coalition of 2,100 women’s rights advocates in 128 nations advancing a global treaty to end violence against women and girls.

An earlier version of this article was included in Every Woman Treaty's report titled Safer Now, which was released 1 February, 2023.

Image by Firoz Sidiqy